WASHINGTON — The State Department on Thursday moved to empower its visa officers to block pregnant women abroad from visiting the United States in an effort to stop “birth tourism” — trips designed to obtain citizenship for their children.
The new rule, to take effect on Friday, will give discretion to consular officers abroad to reject women they believe are entering the United States specifically to gain citizenship for their child by giving birth. The visas covered by the new rule are issued to those seeking to visit for pleasure, medical treatment or to see friends and family.
Conservatives have long railed against what they call “anchor babies,” born on American soil and used by their parents to bring in other family members. President Trump has also criticized the constitutional provision that grants citizenship to most babies born on American soil.
It is not clear whether “birth tourism” is a significant phenomenon or that “anchor babies” do lead to substantial immigration, but many conservatives believe both issues are real and serious. The Trump administration has repeatedly moved to allay such concerns.
“This rule change is necessary to enhance public safety, national security, and the integrity of our immigration system,” the White House press secretary said in a statement. “The birth tourism industry threatens to overburden valuable hospital resources and is rife with criminal activity, as reflected in federal prosecutions. Closing this glaring immigration loophole will combat these endemic abuses and ultimately protect the United States.”
Carl C. Risch, assistant secretary for consular affairs at the State Department, wrote in the final rule: “The birth tourism industry is also rife with criminal activity, including international criminal schemes.”
The rule would raise the burden of proof for pregnant women applying for tourist visas by outlining that giving birth in the country “is an impermissible basis” for visiting the United States. Even if the women say they are entering the country for medical treatment — a legitimate factor for visa eligibility — an applicant would need to prove that she has enough money to pay for such treatment to the satisfaction of the officer.
“If an applicant’s responses to this line of questions are not credible, that may give consular officers reason to question whether the applicant qualifies for a visa,” Mr. Risch said in the rule.
The new policy does not change guidance granted to airport officers working for the Department of Homeland Security, meaning entry eligibility would not be determined in the United States.
It is also not clear how effective the new rule will be. Some visas allow foreigners to visit the United States multiple times over the course of as many as 10 years, meaning an applicant could be granted a visa, get pregnant years later and still be permitted to visit the country.
“Unless D.H.S. changes how its officers interpret travel for pleasure to be consistent with the State Department rule, than people will still come to the United States to give birth. This won’t stop that happening,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
But those abroad applying for visas close to the delivery date could be denied, she said.